The economic downturn and the election of the nation’s first black president are contributing to a resurgence of right-wing extremist groups, which had been on the wane since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, according to a U.S. intelligence assessment distributed to state and local authorities last week.
The report, produced by the Department of Homeland Security, has triggered a backlash among conservatives because it also raised the specter that disgruntled veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might “boost the capabilities of extremists . . . to carry out violence.”
The assessment noted that domestic security officials had seen no evidence that such groups were planning attacks in the U.S.
But it is the first high-level U.S. intelligence report to call attention to an array of recent domestic developments as potential harbingers of terrorist violence.
Among other factors cited in the report were increased prospects for gun control and immigration legislation under President Obama, as well as resentment over the rising economic influence of countries such as China, India and Russia.
But the assessment focuses most of its attention on animosity toward Obama and anxiety over the recession.
“The economic downturn and the election of the first African American president present unique drivers for right-wing radicalization and recruitment,” the report warns in the first of a series of findings.
Overall, the document describes an economic and political climate that has “similarities to the 1990s, when right-wing extremism experienced a resurgence fueled largely by an economic recession, criticism about the outsourcing of jobs, and the perceived threat to U.S. power and sovereignty by other foreign powers.”
The unclassified report was not released publicly but was distributed among law enforcement agencies across the country before it surfaced online this week.
It was produced by the intelligence and analysis branch of the Department of Homeland Security.
Though it covers an array of issues, the assessment has drawn fire from conservatives over a judgment that focuses on the potential violence of returning U.S. troops.
“The willingness of a small percentage of military personnel to join extremist groups during the 1990s because they were disgruntled, disillusioned or suffering from the psychological effects of war is being replicated today,” the report said.
The assessment cites the case of Timothy McVeigh, who was executed in 2001 after being convicted of a bombing that killed 168 people at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City 14 years ago this month.
McVeigh was a decorated veteran of the Gulf War who was accused of plotting the bombing in retaliation for government clashes with a religious sect in Waco, Texas, and rural anti-government militias.
The Homeland Security document cites a 2008 FBI report that said some troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq had joined extremist groups.
The prospect that someone trained in military methods might carry out independent attacks or help form terrorist cells is described as “the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States.”
Veterans groups have expressed dismay at the report’s language, and accused the Department of Homeland Security of political bias.
“To continue to use McVeigh as an example of the stereotypical ‘disgruntled military veteran’ is as unfair as using Osama bin Laden as the sole example of Islam,” said David K. Rehbein, the national commander of the American Legion, in a letter sent Monday to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) also criticized the report, saying its depiction of veterans was “offensive and unacceptable.”
Responding to the criticism, Napolitano said at an event in El Paso that she regretted the report had left the impression that the department was singling out former troops as a threat to the nation.
Napolitano, who as a U.S. attorney was involved in the case against McVeigh, said her department honored veterans and employed thousands of them.
But she defended the report as part of an ongoing effort to warn of emerging domestic threats.
“We don’t have the luxury of focusing our efforts on one group,” Napolitano said. “We must protect the country from terrorism, whether foreign or homegrown.”
Homeland Security officials dismissed accusations that the report was politically motivated, noting that a similar assessment issued in January focused on concerns that left-wing extremists were poised to increase their use of cyber attacks over the next decade.
The department routinely issues intelligence warnings to state and local authorities, a role it was assigned in response to criticism that the federal government had failed to do so in the months preceding the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Describing right-wing groups’ animosity toward Obama, the report said extremist organizations were “harnessing this historical election as a recruitment tool.”
It cited two cases before the election where potential threats against Obama were disrupted by law enforcement.
The assessment also listed economic factors -- including increases in real estate foreclosures and unemployment -- as creating a “fertile recruiting environment” for right-wing groups.
And it describes evidence compiled by local law enforcement agencies that extremist groups are stockpiling weapons out of concern that Congress and the Obama administration might enact legislation requiring the registration of all firearms.
The report also said a push for new immigration legislation that would grant residency or citizenship to people who entered the country illegally could fuel anger among groups fearing competition for jobs.